In her article, Don’t Listen to “Yes,” Martha Lagace, senior editor of the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, discusses her e-mail interview with HBS Professor Michael Roberto on his book, Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer.
According to Roberto, leaders need to create constructive conflict within their organizations in order to more accurately evaluate business ideas, make more effective decisions and determine whether or not their people agree with a decision made.
Roberto highlights the importance of the decision-making process by presenting three “cultures of indecision.” In a company with a “culture of no,” dissenters with power and status can simply veto a decision without having to defend their views with data or logic, effectively stifling dialogue and closing off avenues of inquiry. In a “culture of maybe,” highly analytical companies do not seem to know when to stop gathering information and doing more analyses to reduce the ambiguity of various options and contingencies. In a “culture of yes,” people remain silent during decision-making meetings then object and undercut the consensus afterwards.
The professor cautions, though, that agenda overload and over-efficiency in meetings may stifle constructive conflict since some dissenters need time to gather courage to speak out or to determine how to best express their views while others may want to listen first to better understand the issues before reacting to them. Leaders should provide a variety of forums, including e-mail, where these people can communicate their ideas and opinions.
Roberto points out that lower-level managers and employees may find it difficult and uncomfortable to express dissent. Leaders should, therefore, take concrete steps to build constructive conflict into their decision-making processes, e.g., asking someone to play devil’s advocate in a discussion.
To ensure that the conflict remains constructive, leaders need to “stimulate task-oriented disagreement and debate while trying to minimize interpersonal conflict.”
Ground rules should be established before the decision-making process begins, covering how people should interact during deliberations, clarifying the roles of individuals in the discussions, and respecting the different cognitive styles of participants.
Within the process itself, leaders can intervene during heated debates by presenting the situation from a different perspective to enhance understanding and open new branches of discussion, or to review facts and assumptions when the group is at an impasse. Discipline should be maintained and people held accountable if they violate ground rules.
At the end of the process, leaders cull lessons learned in managing constructive conflict and attend to any hurt feelings or damaged relationships among the participants.
After undergoing constructive conflict, there is more commitment to a decision made and implementation is thereby facilitated.
Roberto adds that decision-making should be a fair process in which all views are given fair hearing. People should:
- Have ample opportunity to express their views and to discuss how and why they disagree with other group members;
- Feel that the decision-making process has been transparent, i.e., relatively free of secretive, behind-the-scenes maneuvering;
- Believe that the leader listened carefully to them and considered their views thoughtfully and seriously before making a decision;
- Perceive that they had a genuine opportunity to influence the leader’s final decision; and
- Have a clear understanding of the rationale for the final decision.
To sustain the habit of constructive conflict in an organization, Roberto recommends that a climate of openness be established and future leaders be trained accordingly since the principles apply to leaders at all levels, from the CEO down the line.
Training will, indeed, be crucial since this looks to be a very challenging balancing task for leaders. Creating dissent or conflict may be necessary in some organizations but, once sparked, controlling it and ensuring that it be constructive is the more difficult part of the job. Given the benefits to be gained, though, it’s a skill that needs to be learned, and learned well.